Category Archives: Objects

Object of the day: a Bamun head crest by Ndam nji Mare of Makoutam

tungunga Bamun de Vlaminck Ndam nji Mare Makoutam Object of the day: a Bamun head crest by Ndam nji Mare of Makoutam

This powerful sculpture is one of my favorite African art objects, I can look at it for hours. It can be attributed to a Bamum workshop in the Makutam region, which produced large scale headcrests, so-called tungunga. It’s talented sculptor (Ndam nji Mare) found a striking balance between the circular volumes of the eyes, cheeks, and chin; placed below protruding arched brows and surmounted by a dramatically backswept bi-lobed headdress. To its benefit, the blown cheeks of this headcrest are smaller and more schematized than in other examples. The subtle curve of the neck lends the sculpture an additional striking dynamic.

This head crest was sold by Sotheby’s in 2007 for 1,608,000 USD (info). The owner, Saul Stanoff, had bought it at auction in Paris twenty years earlier for 65,000 USD (Loudmer, 2 July 1987, lot 176). Quite a markup ! The fact that the piece was once owned by Maurice de Vlaminck did of course play a role in this story.

Tungunga headcrests were danced in pairs of two and evoked the images of a deceased king and his wife. They were held on top of the head and affixed by a fiber construction hidden underneath a raffia frill. Tungungas were danced by the members of the nsoro, a secret society for warriors. Only those men who had killed an enemy in the field of battle could become members of this society. Tungunga dancers appeared only at funerals of important persons, namely of chiefs, members of the royal family, state ministers, and initiates of the nsoro. The bilobed bonnet of the Stanoff tungunga indicates the representation of a king.

Only a few other examples of this rare type of Cameroon art are known; the one below was collected by Henri Labouret and donated before 1934 to the Musée de l’Homme in Paris (now part of the Musée du quai Branly).

Tungunga Bamoun Labouret quai branly 962x1024 Object of the day: a Bamun head crest by Ndam nji Mare of Makoutam

Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (71.1934.171.29).

UPDATE: Sotheby’s Heinrich Schweizer informed me that in his view this head crest in fact wasn’t made by Ndam nji Mare (as said in the Rietberg Museum’s Cameroon – Art and Kings). What is a work by Ndam nji Mare is the tungunga in the Malcolm collection (see below) which he discusses in his forthcoming book Visions of Grace: 100 African Masterpieces from the Collection of Daniel and Marian Malcolm (coming out in September).

 Object of the day: a Bamun head crest by Ndam nji Mare of Makoutam

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum 1 Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum

Dreaming about my next holiday, I reminded I still had to post some pictures of my previous field-trip. I had already discussed the African art on view at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum (here), but still had to show their incredible ensemble of Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago.

They were collected during the winter of 1872-1873 by the then 20 year old French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart. He traveled the Kodiak archipelago by kayak, assembling the largest set of traditionally crafted Alutiiq ceremonial masks in the world; 87 in total. Pinart recognized both the artistic and cultural value of these unique pieces, collecting the names and songs associated with many. When he died in 1911, Pinart bequeathed the masks to the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum. You can discover 65 masks more in detail here.

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum Pinart 1024x813 Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum 2 1024x495 Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum

Boulogne sur Mer Museum Pinart mask 1024x702 Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum

In 2008, the Alutiiq Museum and the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum partnered to create an exhibition of 34 masks from Pinart’s Kodiak collection. After 136 years, the masks returned to Alaska for nine months, visiting Kodiak and then Anchorage. An online presentation of that exhibition can be found here.

Trivia of the day: the crystal skull at the Musée du quai Branly once was owned by Pinart (info) !

A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

mystery figure Africarium collection Vérité June 2006 lot 235 326x1024 A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

Image courtesy of the Africarium collection.

Even after many hours of research, the above figure remains an enigma to me. It was once sold as Baule, but its extraordinary size (98 cm high) is very a-typical for Baule anthropomorphic statuary. Focusing on the hairdo, Attié has been suggested. Clearly this figure is very old, perhaps even older than we think. Such an eroded state is also not something one easily encounters in Ivory Coast sculpture. The biggest mystery might be the presence of the large cavity at the center of the back – see the pictures below. So if you have any suggestions about the origin of this figure, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

back mystery figure Africarium collection Vérité June 2006 lot 235 292x1024 A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

Image courtesy of the Africarium collection.

mystery figure Africarium collection Vérité June 2006 lot 235 cavity 1016x1024 A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

Image courtesy of the Africarium collection.

UPDATE: a reader was so kind to mail me this male Baule figure from the Herbert Baker collection, which, at 105 cm, is even taller. The back of the figure apparently is as eroded, though the face obviously is in a much better condition and has some kind of crown on top. Next to size, the elongated body and small hands are indeed very similar to the Vérité figure. But if our figure is indeed Baule, what about the cavity?

Herbert Baker Baule figure A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

UPDATE 2: Several people have suggested Mbembe (looking at the arms, hair and surface)

Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893-1898

Boa figure Congo Camille DHeygere 1024x717 Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893 1898

Boa figure. Height: ca. 50 cm.

The above Boa figure was collected by Camille D’Heygere. D’Heygere was stationed in the Congo Free State between 1893 and 1898, first as a deputy prosecutor in Boma, later as a judge in New Antwerp. His collection was sold last week at a small auction in Brussels; all objects were heavily underestimated – which of course attracted a lot of attention. The above Boa figure was sold for € 61,000. Only a handful Boa figure are known, among which three by the same hand as this one. Two other objects with this same provenance were sold: a Mbole figure (which made € 68,000) and a Hungana pendant – sold for € 26,000. All three objects were never published before. The early provenance makes this Mbole figure possibly the first to arrive in the West.

Mbole Congo Camille DHeygere 1024x719 Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893 1898

Mbole figure. Height: ca. 70 cm.

Hungana ivory pendant Congo Camille DHeygere 1024x606 Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893 1898

Hungana pendant. Height: ca. 8 cm.

Object of the day: a 19th century Songye kifwebe mask

Vandevelde Songye kifwebe mask 19th century 1024x850 Object of the day: a 19th century Songye kifwebe mask

Currently on view at the Initiates exhibition at the Musée Dapper in Paris, the above Songye kifwebe mask was the first to arrive in Europe in the late 19th century. It was collected by Liévin Vandevelde (1850-1888), a Belgian colonial officer of the Congo Free State, who gave it to his sister in 1885. Stanley, who Vandevelde accompanied during one of his trips considered Vandevelde ‘his second self’. Vandevelde had assisted the German explorer Eduard Pechuël-Loesche on an earlier trip and would later die during his third voyage in Congo in 1888. In 1885, he collaborated with the government of Angola to eradicate witchcraft in the region. He never traveled in the Songye region and probably acquired the mask from a Portuguese. The Musée du quai Branly holds another famous Songye object collected by him, the incredible headrest illustrated below.

Songye headrest Lievin Vandevelde Quai Branly Object of the day: a 19th century Songye kifwebe mask

Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (#73.1986.1.3).

19th century Kongo tourist art: the “Banana atelier”

Early Kongo Tourist Art Bassani 1024x408 19th century Kongo tourist art: the Banana atelier

Continuing on the theme of an earlier post about a Loango market stall with Kongo-derived art for tourists, a reader informed me about an interesting article by Ezio Bassani in African Arts (vol. 12, 1979: pp. 34-35). It discusses seven figures in the collection of the Museo Civici, Reggio Emilia. They belonged to a larger group of ethnographic objects assembled by the Italian explorer Giuseppe Corona in 1887 near the mouth of the Congo River. These objects, stored in Antwerp, were bought on the basis of photographs, and later declared unsatisfactory by their buyer, Luigi Pigorini, founder and director of the Museo Pigorini in Rome. Bassani unveiled a letter dated July 12, 1889, where Pigorini asked the Minister of Public Instruction to interrupt negotiations on the museum’s behalf and oblige the seller to either refund expenses or reduce the price that had been fixed for the acquisition. Pigorini stated the situation as follows:

Since there was no possibility of examining the collection before we agreed to buy it, when asked whether I considered it suitable to acquire it for the museum I direct, I answered in the affirmative, on the condition, of course, that we receive all the objects documented by the photographs presented by the Cav. Corona, and on condition that each object bear unequivocal signs of having been used by the natives from whom it originated, thus excluding the possibility that it [the collection] might consist of materials produced along the coast to be sold to those who hunt for curios … Of such objects, which the Cav. Corona had guaranteed the number given and the condition of having been used, only a few reached us, or the items appear utterly new.

Clearly, already in 1889, signs of ritual usage were considered an important element to consider an object authentic. The seven figures illustrated in the article (shown above) were most likely made by the same anonymous sculptor. Most of the figures appear to represent Europeans. Bassani rightfully concludes that this artist must have worked on order, creating sculptures for sale to foreign sailors and travelers. Even in the 1880s, the production of objects “to be sold to those who hunt for curios” was already flourishing along the African coast.

Figures in this easily recognizable style sometimes pop up at auction, for example recently at Zemanek-Münster here or at Neumeister here (all three illustrated below).

Early Kongo Tourist Art Bassani 2 19th century Kongo tourist art: the Banana atelier

Image courtesy of Neumeister (left figure) and Zemanek-Münster (middle and right figure).

Since J. F. G. Umlauff acquired another figure by this sculptor in Banana (illustrated below) , it’s likely this sculptor was based at this important port on the Kongo coast. The “Banana atelier” therefore seems an appropriate name to label his production.

Early Kongo Tourist Art Penn Museum 19th century Kongo tourist art: the Banana atelier

Image courtesy of the Penn Museum. (#AF1338)

To finish, a letter from Romolo Gessi, an Italian explorer who traveled in the southern Sudan in 1874-1880, quoted by Bassani, which illustrates the liveliness of the hunt for African “objects” on the part of explorers and merchants. In a letter, dated October 21, 1876, to a friend in Cairo, Gessi wrote:

You suggest that I should bring you curiosities. Is there a good market for them in Cairo? I made a collection but it is still incomplete. It is very difficult to find these objects. Everybody here wants to buy them, and the prices have been spoiled, especially by Englishmen who pay for this rubbish at its weight in gold. There are also many Greeks, Jews, etc. who buy up everything. I have sent orders to the chiefs of our military stations to find objects. There is a Russian doctor* here who for 20,000 francs, has already bought utensils, lances, arrows, etc. from the savages. You will easily understand that I cannot rival the prices offered by these people, who are ready to pay whatever price is demanded so as not to return to Europe without a collection. Therefore, let me know whether it is possible to sell these objects at a good price in Cairo because, believe me, it is difficult to find any.

* This was W. Yunker, the Russian explorer, whose collection is one of the oldest and important in the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, Academy of Sciences, Leningrad.

Mystery object of the day: a Congolese double spoon

mystery congoles double spoon 1 1024x575 Mystery object of the day: a Congolese double spoon

The above object, possibly a ritual double spoon, reportedly comes from Congo. Where exactly is unknown to me. If you have already seen an object like this before, or have more information about its origin, please do get in touch! Thanks.

UPDATE: a reader has suggested Kuba as the origin of this double spoon. Personally, I have seen similar fixation twigs on Kuba cups, so he could be right.

UPDATE 2: I got a very interesting reply from Boris Kegel-Konietzko from Hamburg.

Dear Bruno, in 1955-1956 I traveled in the Mweka territory (Kasai) and neighboring areas to collect ethnographic objects. I had very good relations with the Kuba living there and was able to collect many boxes, cups, pipes, textiles and masks of various types. Many of the smaller utensils were provided with a a similar suspension device as the object shown here: liana fibers (lukodi) and a kind of flat-curved hook made from a palm rib. With this hook, objects could be attached to the hut wand, out of reach of mouses. This type of suspension is typically Kuba.

I don’t think this object is a spoon. Since one half would be spilled, when filling the other half. In my opinion this is a ceremonial dinner dish, which could have served as the double drinking cups for simultaneous use by two people during ceremonies.

That solves the mystery !

mystery congolese double spoon 2 1024x696 Mystery object of the day: a Congolese double spoon

Object of the day: a rediscovered Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé

Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé Object of the day: a rediscovered Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé

Image courtesy of Tajan.

Subject of an upcoming single-object auction, the above Guro mask might so far be one of the most important rediscoveries of 2014. It was published only once, by Nancy Cunard, in Negro: Anthology (London, 1934, p. 663). This rare book recently was the subject of an exhibition at the quai Branly museum (info). Formerly in the collections of André Breton & Charles Ratton, this mask disappeared from the public eye since 1931. It’s reappearance on the market, after being ‘lost’ for more than 80 years, is thus quite an exciting event. You can read all about the mask in the catalogue here. The text by Bertrand Goy includes a very interesting paragraph (in French) on the Guro, the history of their discovery and this master carver.

As icing on the cake, this mask is visible on two photos taken in the apartment of André Breton, rue Fontaine, ca. 1924 and ca. 1927.

UPDATE: this mask was sold for € 1.375.000,- !

Bouafle mask ches Breton 1924 1024x657 Object of the day: a rediscovered Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé

Buafle mask at Andre Breton 1927 Object of the day: a rediscovered Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé

Crowned by a lovingly embracing couple, this mask can be attributed to the so-called ‘Master of Bouaflé’. The choice of this village for naming this talented sculptor happened quite arbitrary apparently. Bouaflé or Buafle is a town in the southeastern part of the Guro territory, close to the Yaure border. However, it’s not sure that this artist, active prior to 1920, ever lived there. Though many works of this ‘master’ are known, only one other mask of this specific type exists. Housed at the Yale University Art Gallery, it is however difficult to attribute this mask definitely to the same artist since it lacks the same refinement and is partly repainted.

 Object of the day: a rediscovered Guro mask by the Master of Bouaflé

Guro mask. Image courtesye of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Object of the day: a Luba-Shankadi headrest of the “Master of the Cascade Coiffures”

Luba Shankadi headrest Master of the Cascade Coiffures Blum Object of the day: a Luba Shankadi headrest of the Master of the Cascade Coiffures

One of the highlights of the upcoming Christie’s sale is the above Luba-Shankadi headrest from the Blum collection. Rudolf and Leonore Blum acquired it 19 years ago (on 4 May 1995) at Sotheby’s New York for $ 46,000. Now, this beautiful headrest is estimated at € 200,000-300,000 – which is a rather low estimate, especially if you know that Sotheby’s sold a similar headrest for € 1,524,000 in 2006 (info) and another example of this workshop in 2005 for € 1,356,000.

Ezio Bassani wrote an interesting note on this lot in the catalogue:

My first encounter with the work of this sculptor goes back to more than forty years ago, to the mid-seventies, when I compiled the catalogue of African sculpture in Italian museums[1]. In the Museo di Antropologia ed Etnografia in Florence, I began to study a headrest created by a great miniaturist[2]. It was accessioned in 1902, and had been collected the previous year (according to the record of the Florentine institution) in the village of Kicondja on Lake Kisale, by Ernesto Brissoni, Italian member of the Force Public in the, then Belgian, Congo colony.

The offered Blum headrest is part of a small group of works to whom William Fagg and Margaret Plass, when studying one of these headrests in 1964, gave the name of “Master of the Cascade Coiffures”[3], justified by the monumental coiffure with two enormous wings of supreme elegance, which enrich and crown each of its figures. This element, apparently spectacular when seen in reality, was well-noted by the European explorers, who travelled the Western Congolese regions in the nineteenth-century.

Today the headrests attributed to a limited group of great artists – no more than three or four – working in the small kingdom of Kinkondja, according to the localization by François Neyt[4], are eighteen: eleven with a single caryatid; one with a human being riding an animal with very long body and horns (a sort of goat according to Neyt); six headrests with two face-to-face caryatids; four as the previous ones, and two with different coiffures: one in the cascade shape and the other cruciform fret-worked, a typology which relates to the Hemba, eastern neighbours of the Luba.

This last work, put on sale for the first time, by Sotheby’s of New York, on 4th May 1995, was collected, according to the information supplied by the owner, by his father in 1907, a year which places the piece in the period of acquisition of the group of documented headrests: Florence 1901, Berlin 1904, Philadelphia (exhibited) 1908, Bulawayo 1910, London 1913. A legend under the base of the carving reads: “Repose nuque – pour preserver la coiffure identique celle de l’objet – pice rare”, i.e. “Headrest – to save the hairdress identical to that of the object – rare piece”.

1 Bassani 1977.
2 Inv: n 8312
3 W.Fagg and M. Plass 1964, p. 88.
4 Neyt 1993, p. 177-187.

Bibliography

Bassani E., Il maestro delle capigliagture a cascata, “Critica d’Arte”, 1976, fasc: n 148-149, p.75-87.
Bassani E., Africa – capolavori da un continente, Firenze 2003.
De Maret P., Dery M., Murdoch C., The Luba Shankady Style, “African Arts”, 1973, vol VII, n 1, note p. 88.
Fagg W. and Plass M., African Sculpture, London 1964.
Neyt F., Luba – Aux sources du Zaire, Paris 1993.

Below a rare field-photo showing the aforementioned ‘cascade coiffure’.

Shankadi headdress Michel Object of the day: a Luba Shankadi headrest of the Master of the Cascade Coiffures

The Luba-Shankadi hairstyle in the village of N’Gobo. Photographed by François Léopold Michel in 1899. Image courtesy of RMCA, AP.0.0.1227).

A newly discovered royal Luba-Kalundwe cup

Luba Kalundwe anthropomorphic cup 1 A newly discovered royal Luba Kalundwe cup

The above royal Luba cup probably can be crowned as the discovery of 2013. It was sold at a small European auction at the end of last year. The estimate being € 7,5-10K, it was hammered down for € 130.000 ! Not suprisingly, since cups shaped like human heads with twin drinking receptacles on their underside are among the rarest of Luba royal insignia. This example is very close to a cup sold by Sotheby’s in 2010 for € 161K (info). A third is in the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde (purchased from Hermann Haberer in 1925) and a fourth cup was published in Utotombo (Brussels, 1988: p. 232, #219). Most cups of this type have emanated from Kanyok people and perhaps related groups to the west of the Luba heartland. The Sotheby’s cup has been attributed to a workshop in the Kalundwe region (Felix 1987: 48-49; Neyt 1993: 212), not far from the Luba heartland, as evidenced by certain formal attributes. Some additional pictures:

Luba Kalundwe anthropomorphic cup 2 A newly discovered royal Luba Kalundwe cup

Luba Kalundwe anthropomorphic cup 3 A newly discovered royal Luba Kalundwe cup

Luba Kalundwe anthropomorphic cup 4 A newly discovered royal Luba Kalundwe cup

Luba Kalundwe anthropomorphic cup 5 A newly discovered royal Luba Kalundwe cup

In the Sotheby’s catalogue, Mary Nooter Roberts made some interesting remarks about the function of these cups:

Luba cups of this sort were documented by the late Albert Maesen, former Head of the Ethnography Section at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, who conducted research and a collecting mission in southern Belgian Congo in the 1950s. Maesen reports that among the Kanyok, royal drinking vessels were the only objects he was not permitted to see in a storeroom in which the ruler’s emblems were guarded, including thrones and scepters. He was allowed to view the rectangular box in which the cups were kept, but he was informed that they were only used during a ruler’s investiture and for other sacred occasions (A. Maesen, personal communication, 1987).

Maesen found that royal cups called musenge were also used in a ceremony to honor paternal ancestral spirits, when a titleholder made an offering of cooked cassava while the ruler communed with his ancestors. The chief counselor named Shinga Hemb drank palm wine from one side of the cup and then passed it to the participants who drank from the other side. Similar acts were performed after divination or at the rising of a new moon (A. Maesen, personal communication, 1982).

The secrecy associated with these royal cups and their limited number suggests another possible association: Early colonial sources and oral traditions point to the importance of the skull of the previous ruler to the investiture of his successor. The skull was the vehicle through which the new ruler obtained power, blessing, and wisdom from his predecessor and validated his own link in the chain of political and moral authority. Quiet contemplation with the skull was essential to investiture, and some writers assert that the king consumed human blood from the cranium, to effect his transformation from an ordinary human being to a semi-divine ruler (Verbeke 1937: 59; Van Avermaet and Mbuya 1954: 709-711; Theuws 1962:216). Indeed, the Luba word for royalty, bulopwe,” refers to “the status of the blood” (Roberts and Roberts 2007:32). It has been asserted that carved wooden cups might have replaced and symbolized the use of skulls in important rituals (Huguette Van Geluwe, personal communication, 1982). Such an assertion remains a hypothetical explanation for the existence of these beautifully carved and carefully concealed cups.